Confrontational Architecture: Europe's Mosques Move from Back Alleys to Boulevards

By Ulrike Knöfel

There are plans to build several hundred new and often magnificent mosques throughout Europe -- particularly in Germany. Architecture has become the field of a fierce ideological battle about the visibility of Europe's 16 million Muslims.

Just a few minutes ago, Mubashra Ilyas was still standing on her dusty construction site. Now the 30-year-old architect is striding through a gallery in the back courtyard of a building in Berlin's Mitte district in elegant black boots. As the room slowly fills up, Ilyas continues to stand out: She's the only woman wearing a headscarf.

The topic of the evening's discussion is "Mosques, Migration and Myth," and Ilyas doesn't want to miss it. She designed the first mosque to be built in eastern Berlin -- the first in all of eastern Germany, in fact -- and it's just about finished. The official opening is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 16.

The next few hours at Berlin's Aedes Architecture Forum will be spent discussing the issues of how "back alley mosques" will soon become a thing of the past, the aesthetics of the new mosques and traditional versus modern styles. The real issue of debate, however, will be the fact that, stone by stone and minaret by minaret, Muslims in Germany want to become more visible -- they are no longer content to have their places of worship largely hidden from public view. In architectural terms, they want to be part of the cityscape in a way they have never been before.

In fact, if you wanted to give a name to the topic of discussion, it wouldn't be wrong to call it "confrontational architecture," as the passions it excites clearly show just how large the rift is between the immigrant community and the German majority.

Erecting large numbers of symbols of Islam could change society in ways that no one can yet imagine. In the face of this development, some are calling for calm, while others are warning fellow citizens about the growing influence by fundamentalist groups. Both standpoints are understandable -- which makes every dispute particularly touchy.

No country in Europe can simply dodge the debate. Immigration to Germany already has a 50-year history, and the time has now come for German society to finally integrate its Muslims, whose religion continues to be foreign to the average German. At the same time, Germany must not weaken its own values by practicing misguided tolerance or putting up with ideological attacks against the West's fundamental order in the name of encouraging religious freedom. Still, harboring prejudices is equally unacceptable. The situation is only getting touchier, and there is a lot at stake. Mosques are symbols of this, too.

Not Always Welcome

Ilyas won't allow herself to play an active role in the evening's discussion -- she's not used to asking questions. Instead, she's much more accustomed to answering them "and to having to defend myself as a Muslim."

Since architects are the ones doing most of the talking, the discussion in the gallery is primarily focused on architectural and aesthetic issues. But, in the current debate in Germany, few actually care what the mosques look like. Instead, the enormous challenge to urban planning posed by building mosques in Europe isn't their appearance -- it's their sheer existence. The mosque dispute raging in Cologne illustrates the extent to which they are the concrete expression of a change in society that Germans are still having great difficulty coming to terms with.

The word "mosque" derives from a word meaning "place of prostration." But the many foes of the new mosques see them more as places of pure presumptuousness. They find having an unobstructed view of the nearest filling station much more bearable than that of a minaret.

The same holds true for Italy, Norway, Switzerland and even Britain, where more than 270,000 people have signed a petition against what are merely vague plans for a mega-mosque. But it's especially true for Germany, where the largest number of mosques -- almost 200 -- is expected to be built. And Germany also has no shortage of citizen action committees voicing their opposition to the building of new mosques.

The numerous attempts to block construction illustrate how a smoldering conflict that otherwise remains hidden from view is being openly waged in the field of architecture. Wherever you go, the pattern is almost identical: First there are complaints about encroachments on the urban environment and haggling over possible locations and the height of domes and minarets -- whether they can be 15, 20 or 55 meters. Or, as is the case in Munich, it might just be about aesthetic competition with a nearby church. And, then, the debate moves to the underlying issue: the locals' fear of preachers of hate, terrorist attacks, jihad and the accusation that, with every minaret it builds, Europe is prostrating itself further to the power of Mecca.

Ilyas is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. She was born and raised in Frankfurt am Main, and during her university years in Darmstadt, she concentrated her studies on mosques as "foreign bodies in the city." She is currently supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation on mosque architecture, though she readily admits that her work on the construction site has slowed progress on her degree more than she'd like.

Ilyas' mosque is located in Berlin's eastern district of Heinersdorf and is being built for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at community, of which she's a member. She has already worked on similar projects, but the Heinersdorf mosque is her real debut.

The mosque has already had its fair share of trouble. First, there was the fire in a building contractor's site trailer. Later, some people broke into the site and spray-painted inflammatory words on the mosque's dome: "Out with this shit! NSDAP," the official initials of Hitler's Nazi Party. There were demonstrations; not all of them were nonviolent, and some of them were even organized by the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).

Another City, Another Client

On Oct. 26, 10 days after the Heinersdorf mosque is scheduled to open, the Merkez Mosque -- which will be Germany's largest -- is also scheduled to open its doors in Duisburg's working-class and industrial district of Marxloh. For many years, Muslim members of the city's ethnic Turkish community have gathered to pray in the cafeteria of a former mining company. They eventually decided to demolish it and build a mosque, and now they have a new, magnificently painted building with meeting spaces and room for 1,200 worshippers. They received private donations and public subsidies, and they faced no major opposition.

"Every city works differently," notes Mustafa Kücük, the spokesman for the Duisburg mosque. "Many places are still stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to integration -- nothing has grown together there." But, Kücük stresses: "If a community allows a mosque to be built, it is more or less telling its people, 'You're accepted here.'"

The question then arrises: Is Duisburg just particularly liberal? The fact is that plans to construct two more mosques in the city, which is located in the industrial Ruhr region of western Germany, have sparked protests by local inhabitants.

Some 16 million Muslims live in the European Union, and more than 3 million of those are in Germany. They share the same faith but not necessarily the same geographic roots, language and traditions. More than 70 percent of Germany's Muslims are ethnic Turks. The organization behind many of the mosques being built in Germany, including the ones in Duisburg's Marxloh district and Cologne's Ehrenfeld neighborhood, is the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB).

There are currently about 2,600 Islamic centers of worship in Germany along with 200 structures that can be classified as mosques. According to current plans, this last figure is now expected to double. In essence, this means that groups are moving out of inconspicuous, temporary quarters and into consecrated spaces. Indeed, Muslims are creating more dignified places to worship, although they are generally situated in modest locations somewhat removed from city centers. In Ingolstadt, for example, a mosque was even built next to a hazardous-waste disposal facility.

Developments like that create a paradox for many Germans. You can't first accuse Muslims of barricading themselves in back rooms and of refusing to integrate themselves into society and then criticize them -- in areas where they're been living for two or three generations -- for wanting to build proper houses of worship. The fact of the matter is that they are putting themselves out in the public realm. Moreover, having an "invisible" minority culture that the majority considers practically inscrutable has the much more dangerous potential of causing problems than does having a minority culture whose visibility actually lends it a rather ordinary, everyday feel.

So where exactly does the provocation lie?

During the debate over the mosque in Cologne's Ehrenfeld district, Ralph Giordano, the atheist novelist of Jewish heritage and Holocaust survivor, has called the project a "land grab on foreign territory"and even a "declaration of war." Giordano has found support in many people who, at other times, would be much more likely to be found preaching tolerance. The controversy has made news around the world -- and it's still far from blowing over.

Meanwhile, the building permit for the mosque in Ehrenfeld has been issued, and a book has even been written about this particular mosque dispute, which happens to be the fiercest of its kind in Germany. Still, nothing is settled. Although Germany's Catholic bishops spoke out in favor of building mosques, they still said they wouldn't stand for any show of "claims to power, rivalry or aggressive interaction" in statements made in September. That sounds like a threat. At the very least, it hints at a fear of competing landmarks.

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